Who Will Reach The Rising American Electorate?

Terrance Heath

The rising American electorate that twice propelled Barack Obama into the White House could be a deciding factor in 2014, if either party reaches out with a message that addresses concerns of its diverse constituencies and motivates them to vote.

The “rising American electorate” is the name given to the core of the electoral majority behind Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and in 2012. In both elections, the Obama campaign reached out to the rising American electorate with a message that united the diverse groups at its core, and policies that addressed the concerns of each.

At The New Populism Conference on Thursday, an afternoon session will be devoted to the plight of the rising American electorate in today’s economy and how a populist progressive movement can address their concerns and mobilize them to be a force at the voting booth. The all-day conference will be live-streamed on the conference web page, the Free Speech TV website and other sites.

Who is the rising American electorate? Together, they are 54 percent of the total American electorate. They are not a monolith, but a heterogeneous coalition of groups with concerns both shared and unique. In 2008 and 2012 overwhelming majorities of each voted for Barack Obama.

  • Young Americans are the largest bloc. Consisting of 80 million eligible voters ages 18 to 29, and adding 4 million per year, they are the largest and fastest growing constituency. They are also the most diverse; 39 percent are people of color. In 2012, they account for 19 percent of the vote, and backed Obama by a 2 to 1 ratio.
  • Women also incorporate diverse groups, including African Americans, Latinos, and other people of color, as well as young women ages 18 to 29. Unmarried women account for 21 percent of the vote. In 2012, 67 percent voted for Obama.
  • African Americans, 13 percent of the overall electorate, are the most solid bloc of the rising American electorate. Their unity behind Obama played a significant role in his victories. In 2012, 93 percent voted for Obama.
  • Latinos, represent 10 percent of the vote, are also a major constituency. In 2012, 75 percent voted for Obama.
  • LGBT Americans, though just 5 percent, were crucial to Obama’s victories. In 2012, 77 percent voted for Obama.
  • Asian Americans account for 3 percent of the electorate, and in 2012, 70 to 73 percent voted for Obama.

Obama and the Democrats inspired and mobilized the rising American electorate with policies that addressed the specific needs and shared concerns of each group, and a message that fully included them in the American identity. When Obama said, “Yes we can,” voters in the rising American electorate knew they were included, because both the candidate and the party explicitly included them.

In 2008 and 2012, Democrats inspired and energized the rising American with the “fusion politics” Barack Obama debuted as a young Senator in his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and that fuels the “Moral Mondays” movement today. But what of the Republicans?

If Democrats appeal overtly to the rising American electorate, Republicans go out of their way to dismiss and deny its significance. In 2008, the GOP seemed to settle on a strategy of appealing to the basest of the Republican base.

Republicans spent the next four years insulting the constituencies of the rising American electorate with rhetoric and injuring them with policies.

  • Republicans passed odious anti-immigrant laws in the states, killed the DREAM Act in Congress, and hammered an anti-immigration plank into the party platform.
  • Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh called women who use contraception “sluts,” while candidates like Rick Santorum and Todd Akin promised to turn back the clock on reproductive freedom.
  • Republican-controlled state legislatures passed “Voter ID” laws designed to keep African Americans, Latinos, and other Democratic voters away from the polls.
  • Right-wing candidates like Newt Gingrich portrayed African Americans as lazy, welfare-dependent, Democratic dupes.
  • Young Americans struggling with crushing student debt called on Congress to keep interest rates on student loans from increasing, and Republicans told them to “drop dead.”
  • While the GOP doubled down with an anti-LGBT platform, faithful “culture warriors” went AWOL. White working-class voters were more interested in economic populism, and majorities of Black and Latino voters backed marriage equality in state ballot initiatives.

For the GOP and its predominantly white base, the 2008 election of Barack Obama was an aberration, caused by the community organizing group ACORN and massive voter fraud. The 2012 election of Mitt Romney was supposed to be a restoration of the status quo. Instead Republicans were caught between irreversible demographic trends and a base experiencing a loss of primacy on both cultural and economic fronts.

Republican efforts at “rebranding” to appeal to a more diverse electorate, laughably superficial as they were, are all but abandoned now. But that doesn’t necessarily doom the GOP in 2014. Demography is not destiny. Republicans may be running on a dead-end agenda that America’s populist majority strongly opposes, but it’s one that motivates the GOP base, one with a history of turning out for midterm elections and producing results that buoy right-wingers, but doesn’t reflect what the increasingly populist majority wants.

The constituencies of the rising American electorate are sinking in this economy. Minorities, women, and young Americans face record unemployment, income inequality, and a growing wealth gap. Yet, as the Moral Mondays movement shows, the rising American electorate can still be motivated and mobilized between presidential elections.

The party that can reach the rising American electorate with a progressive, populist agenda that creates jobs, invests in people, and creates an economy that works for everyone may have a lot to celebrate after Election Day.

Progressives will meet in Washington on Thursday to craft just such an agenda. Republicans can’t do that without alienating what remains of their base. With the right agenda and message, this year Democrats could score victories that will protect the accomplishments of the past six years, and lay the foundation for expanding those accomplishments.

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